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Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus)

Walrus

Wal­rus, Hin­lo­pen Strait.

Descrip­ti­on: The Wal­rus is the lar­gest seal spe­ci­es in the Arc­tic and the second-lar­gest one on a glo­bal sca­le; only male Ele­phant seals out­grow Wal­rus. The tusks, that can be up to one met­re long, make them unmistaka­ble; tusks of Wal­rus cows are slight­ly smal­ler than tho­se of bulls. Bulls can be up to 3.5 metres long and 1,500 kg in weight, while cows reach 2.5 metres and a weight of 900 kg. A new­ly born Wal­rus baby is 1.3 metres long and weighs sweet 60-85 kg. The Paci­fic Wal­rus (O. r. diver­gens) is slight­ly big­ger than its Atlan­tic rela­ti­ve. Both are con­si­de­red sub­s­pe­ci­es of the same spe­ci­es.

The colour is brown, but varia­ble: Once they have spent some hours ashore, the skin tends to have a pin­kish shade, espe­cial­ly in warm wea­ther, as an incre­a­sed blood cir­cu­la­ti­on in the thick skin pre­vents over­hea­ting. When they come out of the water or if it is cold, they decre­a­se blood cir­cu­la­ti­on to pre­ser­ve heat; then they will appe­ar almost dark-grey.

Tel­ling the sexes apart is dif­fi­cult. Adult males are signi­fi­cant­ly lar­ger than fema­les. Males have got more scars and cha­rac­te­ris­tic callu­ses around the neck, whe­re­as the cows have smoot­her skin.

Walrus

Wal­ru­ses near Lågøya. At least the one to the right is qui­te clear­ly a male.

The signi­fi­can­ce of the tusks is not clear. It is known that they are not nee­ded to obtain food. They are cer­tain­ly use­ful for defence against Polar bears, alt­hough this is rare­ly nee­ded, and for clim­bing up on ice floes. The most important pur­po­se is cer­tain­ly as a sta­tus sym­bol and wea­pon for figh­t­ing during the mating sea­son. The tusks may break off, which cer­tain­ly affects the bree­ding sta­tus of males, but it does not influ­ence life expec­tancy.

Walrus

Wal­rus with only on tusk in Isfjord.

Wal­rus are very social. Sin­gle ani­mals are the excep­ti­on. They stay in groups, often with more than 20 indi­vi­du­als. Herds of more than 100 ani­mals are not the rule in Sval­bard, but such lar­ge or even lar­ger groups do occur.

Dis­tri­bu­ti­on / Migra­ti­on: Wal­rus occur in several are­as around the Arc­tic. The­re are several, more or less iso­la­ted popu­la­ti­ons in nor­the­as­tern Cana­da and West Green­land as well as nor­the­as­tern Sibe­ria and the Bering Strait. The Atlan­tic Wal­rus is spread from Nor­the­ast Green­land to Sval­bard, Franz Josef Land and Nova­ya Zem­lya. Sval­bard and Franz Josef Land are a key regi­on for this popu­la­ti­on, alt­hough the majo­ri­ty stays in the east, in the Rus­si­an Arc­tic. The­re is an inte­res­ting sexu­al segre­ga­ti­on: The bulls tend to stay in Spits­ber­gen, while the cows tog­e­ther with their cal­ves obvious­ly pre­fer the nor­the­as­tern­most parts of Sval­bard and Franz Josef Land. In recent years, sightin­gs of fema­les and cal­ves have incre­a­sed also in Spits­ber­gen. This very posi­ti­ve ten­den­cy is due to the gene­ral return of Wal­rus to their ori­gi­nal ran­ge pre-dating the arri­val of Euro­peans in Spits­ber­gen, who intro­du­ced hun­ting that almost led to regio­nal extinc­tion of Wal­rus in Spits­ber­gen in the 1950s. Even today, most Wal­rus in Sval­bard are found in the nor­the­as­tern parts of the archi­pe­la­go, which was not visi­ted by ear­ly wha­lers. One well-known colo­ny is at the sou­thern tip of Mof­fen.

Walrus, Amsterdamøya

Wal­ru­ses hau­led out on shore on Ams­ter­damøya.

Wal­rus spend the who­le year in the same regi­on, but move away from the coast and towards open water during the win­ter. They need polyn­yas: are­as that remain ice-free during the who­le win­ter due to cur­r­ents. Polyn­yas occur on the nort­hern sides of both Sval­bard and Franz Josef Land. As soon as the coast beco­mes ice-free, wal­ru­ses return to their tra­di­tio­nal haul-out sites. They tend to use the same sites year after year: beaches near shal­low, pro­duc­ti­ve waters with mud­dy bot­tom, whe­re they find good fee­ding grounds. After a suc­cess­ful fee­ding trip, they may rest for several days ashore – up to ele­ven days of sies­ta have been obser­ved (who has obser­ved this for ele­ven days?), and in his­to­ri­cal reports the­re is talk about Wal­rus slee­ping on the beach for about seven weeks!

During the litt­le ice age, the­re were occa­sio­nal sightin­gs of Wal­rus in the River Tha­mes, and in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, a Wal­rus even got lost in the sou­thern Bal­tic sea.

Bio­lo­gy: The pre­fer­red diet con­sists almost exclu­si­ve­ly of the mus­sel Blunt­ga­per (Mya are­na­ria), which lives in the mud at the sea bot­tom and fil­ters planc­ton. Wal­rus can sen­se the mus­sels with their whis­kers and use their nose, and pos­si­b­ly a strong jet of water that they pro­du­ce to unco­ver the mus­sel. Then they will suck the meat out of the shells. The sto­machs of Wal­ru­ses have been found to con­tain up to 70 kg of mus­sel meat, but not a sin­gle shell! Pro­duc­ti­ve and shal­low waters are obvious­ly an important part of their habi­tat.

Bluntgaper (Mya arenaria)

Blunt­ga­per (Mya are­na­ria), the pre­fer­red diet of wal­rus­ses in Sval­bard. Several thousand years old spe­ci­mens in gla­cio-iso­sta­ti­cal­ly uplifted mari­ne sedi­ment (rai­sed beaches) on Nord­aus­t­land.

The­re are sin­gle indi­vi­du­als that have a dif­fe­rent tas­te and pre­da­te on seals. The­se Wal­rus have got a par­ti­cu­lar­ly high level of con­ta­mi­na­ti­on with envi­ron­men­tal toxins (hea­vy metals, PBCs etc.).

Mating is bet­ween Decem­ber and Febru­a­ry and copu­la­ti­on takes place in the water near the ice edge. Bulls have hea­vy fights for fema­les, during which serious inju­ries occur. A sin­gle calf is born 15 mon­ths later, in May of the fol­lowing year. The fema­le will sepa­ra­te from the herd to give birth on an ice floe. The calf spends about two years with its mother.

Walrus cow with calf

Wal­rus fami­ly life: cow with calf. Near Edgeøya.

Mis­cel­la­ne­ous: The size of the Wal­rus popu­la­ti­on in Sval­bard and Franz Josef Land is esti­ma­ted to be bet­ween 3,000 and 4,000 ani­mals and is incre­a­sing. The strong skin, that was used amongst other things for machi­ne belts during the ear­ly days of indus­tria­li­sa­ti­on, and also the ivory were high­ly sought-after goods. Sin­ce the 17th cen­tu­ry, the­re has been hea­vy hun­ting pres­su­re on Wal­rus in Spits­ber­gen. On count­less occa­si­ons, several hund­red ani­mals were kil­led wit­hin hours. Befo­re tho­se cru­el days, Wal­rus must have been very abundant any­whe­re in Sval­bard, even inclu­ding Bjørnøya.

Hun­ting was final­ly ban­ned com­ple­te­ly in 1952, and this total pro­tec­tion is still in for­ce in Sval­bard. The popu­la­ti­on is incre­a­sing, but still nowhe­re near its ori­gi­nal size. Recent thre­ats inclu­de dis­tur­ban­ce at the haul-out sites, con­ta­mi­na­ti­on with envi­ron­men­tal toxins, cli­ma­te chan­ge and oil spills.

Polar bears occa­sio­nal­ly try to kill a Wal­rus, alt­hough they have respect for the strong tusks. Orcas may be dan­ge­rous for Wal­rus in the water. Other than that, the­re is no pre­d­a­tor that Wal­rus would have to fear. Litt­le is known about the life expec­tancy, but it will surely be bey­ond 30 years, pos­si­b­ly 40.

Wal­rus are easi­ly dis­tur­bed ashore. Any­bo­dy who approa­ches Wal­rus that are hau­led out on the beach, has to exer­cise the grea­test care: Slow approach, no noi­se, no sud­den move­ments, no smell being blown towards the Wal­rus and, espe­cial­ly, a respect­ful distance are key fac­tors to avoid dis­tur­ban­ce. 30 metres should defi­ni­te­ly be the mini­mum distance for any approach (this is also the distance set by AECO gui­de­li­nes), and in many cases you will have to stay fur­ther away, depen­ding on the ani­mals and the situa­ti­on. Let them know you are the­re at an ear­ly sta­ge; this is defi­ni­te­ly bet­ter than them fin­ding out about your pre­sence when you are alrea­dy clo­se. The worst case sce­n­a­rio is a who­le herd lea­ving a res­ting place in panic, all rus­hing into the water. For rea­son­ab­le pho­tos, you need a tele­pho­to lens, but 300 mm should nor­mal­ly do.

The­re is no indi­ca­ti­on of dis­tur­ban­ce by visi­tors being a pro­blem for wal­rus.

Curious walrus

Curious wal­rus at Prins Karls For­land.

Next to the view, it is the sound that can be qui­te impres­si­ve; just ima­gi­ne up to 70 kg of raw mus­sel meat being digested in every sto­mach! Con­si­de­ring this, it is not sur­pri­sing that also the smell can lea­ve you with unf­or­gett­able impres­si­ons.

On shore, Wal­ru­ses are rather klut­zy and slow, but in the water, they are very much in their ele­ment and accord­in­gly agi­le and fast. Bear this in mind when you have them near­by small boats. Often, Wal­ru­ses are rather peace­ful ani­mals, but their curiou­si­ty may reach unplea­sant degrees and aggres­si­on inclu­ding attacks on small boats and even yachts is not unhe­ard of.

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last modification: 2019-03-16 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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